[Excerpts, with occasional modest edits, from The Real Muḥammad: In the Eyes of Ibn Isḥāq, copyright 2013, TEI Publishing House. All quotations from the Sīrat Rasūl Allāh (“Life of the Messenger of Allāh”) are from the translation by Alfred Guillaume (Oxford University Press), copyright 1955. These stories are faithfully passed along from the most ancient, extant and authoritative biography of Muḥammad. All Muslims are called to imitate Muḥammad in their daily lives, and Muslim scholars know that Ibn Isḥāq is the best source for the historical Muḥammad, despite concern for various hon-historical material. The question is this: Can Muḥammad satisfy the Muslim thirst for freedom? How many people, of their own volition, would follow Muḥammad if they were free to choose otherwise? The same question is freely received by Muslims who would question Christians who follow Jesus as the Son of God]
Muḥammad’s Proclamation and Offer to the Jews of Khaybar
John C. Rankin
Ibn Isḥāq records for us:
“The apostle wrote to the Jews of Khaybar according to what a freedman of the family of Zayd b. Thābit told me from ‘Ikrima or from Sa‘īd b. Jubayr from Ibn ‘Abbās: ‘In the name of God [Allāh] the compassionate[,] the merciful[,] from Muhammad the apostle of God [Allāh][,] friend and brother of Moses who confirms what Moses brought. God [Allāh] says to you, O scripture folk, and you will find it in your scripture[,] “Muhammad is the apostle of God [Allāh]; and those with him are severe against the unbelievers, merciful among themselves. Thou sent them bowing, falling prostrate, seeking bounty and acceptance from God [Allāh]. The mark of their prostrations is on their foreheads. That is their likeness in the Torah and in the Gospel[,] like a seed which sends forth its shoot and strengthens it[,] and it becomes thick and rises straight upon its stalk[,] delighting the sowers that He may anger the unbelievers with them. God [Allāh] has promised those who believe and do well[,] forgiveness and a great regard.” I adjure you by God [Allāh], and by what He has sent down to you, by the manna and quails He gave as food to your tribes before you, and by His drying up the sea for your fathers when He delivered them from Pharaoh and his works, that you tell me, Do you find in what He has sent down to you that you should believe in Muhammad? If you do not find that in your scripture then there is no compulsion upon you. “The right path has become plainly distinguished from error’ so I call you to God [Allāh] and His prophet.’
In these words, a remarkable challenge is posed. Yet Ibn Isḥāq gives no follow through of any discussion of the Torah and the Gospel itself, and whether Muḥammad’s assertions are confirmed or not. In fact, neither Ibn Isḥāq nor Muḥammad ever quotes the canonical biblical texts. They only assert.
Ibn Isḥāq does continue here and say: “Among the people concerning whom the Quran came down, especially the rabbis and unbelieving Jews who used to ask him questions[,] and annoying him in confusing truth with falsehood … the apostle as he was reciting the opening words of The Cow: ‘Alif, Lām, Mīm, That is the book about which there is no doubt.’ ”
Muḥammad is also challenging the very basis of the treaty he just made with the Jews of Medīna, to respect their religion and property by calling them to submit to Islām. But also, at this juncture, he leaves open their freedom to say no if they do not see Muḥammad in the Tanakh. In the Qur’ān itself, a strikingly familiar use of language is in place: “Let there be no compulsion in religion: truth stands out clear from error” (2:256).
This idea of “no compulsion” proves to be the virtual exception in Muḥammad’s life, and happens at a time when his political power is not yet consolidated. Yet, if there are Muslim scholars who would argue otherwise, then Islām must be a two-way religion – free to enter or depart at will – and not its historical identity as a one-way religion – whether you are born into, forced or willingly convert – you may not leave Islām.